When the 49ers traded for wide receiver Anquan Boldin in March, they envisioned Boldin as part of a 1-2 punch with fellow wideout Michael Crabtree.
The combination of Boldin, who caught 22 passes in the postseason as the Ravens marched to a Super Bowl victory, and Crabtree, who was coming off a season in which he set career highs for catches (85), yards (1,105) and touchdowns (9), would give quarterback Colin Kaepernick a superb pair of deep targets.
But when Crabtree suffered an Achilles’ tendon tear this spring, those plans went out the window.
Since then, the 49ers have struggled to find a complement to Boldin, with a parade of wideouts auditioning for the role but falling short. Now, veteran Mario Manningham will be back in the lineup this Sunday when the 49ers host the Carolina Panthers, and Crabtree has returned to practice and could be activated within a couple of weeks. Suddenly, the Niners are looking much deeper at the position.
But what’s gone on this season at the wide receiver position certainly shines a light on one thing: Where would the Niners be if general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh hadn’t engineered a deal to get Boldin from the Ravens for a sixth-round draft pick?
From the season’s opening game, when Boldin caught 13 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown in a 34-28 victory over Green Bay, the veteran has been Kaepernick’s go-to guy. Though often double covered (with the absence of a credible threat from other wideouts), Boldin has been terrific. At the halfway point of the season for the 6-2 49ers, Boldin has 38 catches for 551 yards and two scores. Those stats project to a 1,000-yard receiving season for No. 81.
Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis (who has become the team’s other main option) both project to being 1,000-yard receivers in 2013. If that should happen, it would be San Francisco’s first pair of 1,000 yard receivers in the same season since 1998, when Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens did it, points out Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Boldin had 921 receiving yards in 2012 for Baltimore and hasn’t had a 1,000-yard season since 2009 when he was in Arizona. He’s had five seasons of 1,000 or more yards in his 10 NFL seasons before coming to San Francisco.
Since he arrived in the Bay Area, teammates and coaches have sung his praises as the ultimate professional.
Even as he’s been the focus of opposing secondaries, Boldin has continued to find ways to get open.
“I get a lot more roll coverage,” Boldin told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group recently, of the attention he gets. “A lot more double teams. Defenses try to take me out a lot more.” The only thing he can do, he says, is continue to work to get open.
Now, with Manningham back and Crabtree on deck, that kind of attention on Boldin may slip away. It’s possible that the 49ers’ passing game could be much more effective over the final eight games with more deep options for Kaepernick. Rookie Quinton Patton, recovering from a broken foot, also is in the wings.
“Always good to have the receivers back out there,” Kaepernick told reporters Wednesday after throwing to both Manningham and Crabtree in practice. “Mario, he’s a receiver that’s easy to throw to, so it’s not going to take much time for him to get back up to speed.”